Blogger: Wendy Lawton
When I open a fiction manuscript nothing gives away the skill level of the writer more quickly than the writer’s use of description. The novice tends to fall in love with description, offering it generously and effusively. Titian tresses and emerald eyes often feature prominently. Every minute detail is painstakingly described from the brass doorknob touched by the delicate hand to a wall-to-wall description of the ornate room.
So what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t it help paint a picture?
Here’s what’s wrong:
- Description should be offered from the point of view of a particular character, not from the point of view of the author. If the point of view is our hero, for instance– a man’s man– he better not be describing the fabric of a dress, unless he is a tailor, or the kind of flower in the vase, unless he is a botanist.
- The description and the specifics that are noticed should tell us something about the character who is noticing. Description is a tool, a clue to understanding the character.
- Yes, description can set the stage and paint a picture but the skillful writer knows how to sketch a rich scene with just a few strokes of the pen. If the writer over-describes he doesn’t allow room for the reader to create the setting in his own imagination. It’s the scene the reader conjures from his own images and memories that will make the book come alive for him.
- If the writer draws the reader’s eye to something, that reader has a right to expect that object to figure into the story in a significant way. If I point out the regimental sword on the wall, it should either tell me something about the character who put it there or be found, bloodied, beside a body later in the book.
I recently discovered a new-to-me author, Louise Penny, who takes description to a whole new level. Since picking up her first Inspector Gamache book, Still Life, I’ve eagerly read through her entire back list and have pre-ordered her book due out this August. She’s relatively new– ten books in ten years, I believe– but is already a New York Times #1 bestselling author with her books receiving multiple awards and starred reviews. No wonder. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said it best: “An eternally lovely and deeply affecting series. . . that transcends the genre and works, as worthy literature should, on multiple levels. . . A treat for the mind and a lesson for the soul.”
Here’s just one example of how she makes description work on more than one level. She’s describing a recurring main character in the series:
At thirty-five years old, Jean Guy Beauvoir had been Gamache’s second in command for more than a decade. He wore cords and a wool sweater under his leather jacket. A scarf was rakishly and apparently randomly whisked around his neck. It was a look of studied nonchalance which suited his toned body but was easily contradicted by the cord-tight tension of his stance. Jean Guy Beauvoir was loosely wrapped but tightly wound.
Brilliant description, right? If you wish to learn how a master handles description, I’d highly recommend studying Louise Penny.
So how about you? Do you have an example of brilliant description, either from your own work or a favorite author’s work? What are some other things that can be accomplished by using description like a pro? What do amateurs do that sets your teeth on edge?